Fear and Hope for Britain’s Mammals: An Overview

Look to the wilderness of Northern Europe and you will find brown bears, grey wolves, wild cats, and some of the best remaining strongholds for large mammals on the continent. Look to the UK on the other hand, and you see a state of overgrazed grasslands, skeletonized hedgerows, and monocultured forests. In the face of the global extinction and climate crisis, even the most praised of Britain’s mammals are facing decline, as the IUCN red list declares one in four species at risk of extinction, and the persecution of wild populations continues. 

In this article, I offer a brief summary of some of the UK mammal species that have experienced their share of ups and downs throughout 2020, and hopes for UK mammal conservation for the future.

Stop Badgering Our Wildlife

To start this somewhat gloomy investigation, I will highlight the state of one of the most notoriously villainised of the UK’s mammals: the Eurasian badger.

In 1971, the body of a badger was found on a Gloucestershire farm which had just suffered an outbreak of bovine tuberculosis (bTB). The badger tested positive for bTB, and received the blame for the increasing occurrence of the disease. Their persecution has since been a non-stop trial across the country. Badgers are wrongly believed to be the key cause of transmission of bTB, while meticulous scientific evidence has long indicated that the main transmission route is cattle-to-cattle. 

In March 2020, the UK government finally agreed to move away from lethal methods of control, and switched to an exciting and optimistic vaccination programme to reduce bTB presence without culling this protected species – yay! Yet this Autumn, it was announced that 70,000 healthy badgers will be culled across the UK in a complete U-turn of the programme – bringing the cull total to a staggering 35% of the entire UK population since 2013.

On the topic of the new cull, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust CEO Estelle Bailey said: “This government has repeatedly said it will be guided by the science, yet it seems to be ignoring its own advice.”

According to the UK badger trust, vaccination programmes can save as much as £800 per animal compared to culling, and are a more sustainable and ethical method for long term prevention of bTB.

Given that cases of bTB are often more numerous in regions in which badgers have already been pressed to local extinction or are not even present (Ireland and the Isle of man respectively), it is surprising that such a non-scientifically led approach has once again been given the go ahead.

As well as culling, badgers face further decline resulting from habitat loss – a theme that will be rather recurrent throughout this article.

To find out more on UK badger conservation and the cull, visit: https://www.badgertrust.org.uk

The Eurasian badger (Image Credit: Andy Ballard, Pixabay licence)

Pining for a Solution

As just mentioned,  another key threat to the native mammals of the UK is habitat loss and availability – the topic of new research led by scientists at Queen’s University Belfast. In their new study, researchers have identified the habitat related threats to the pine marten (Martes martes), and in particular, their survival within human-modified landscapes.

Pine martens are an invaluable ally in the control of invasive grey squirrel populations, but have historically faced heavy persecution and habitat loss in the UK, leading to dramatic decline, however their populations are slowly recovering. This new research, led by Dr Joshua P Twining, has found that human-modified landscapes have dramatically altered pine marten density and population structure.

Martens require tall and old woodland as a preferred site for building their dens, but the quite often monocultured forests of the UK offer little in the form of such habitats, and instead the martens are persisting in sub-optimal denning sites, among human-made infrastructure or underground.

Fortunately, the researchers have identified the denning site problem to be a main factor in holding back the pine marten recovery, and have suggested that one solution to the low numbers of pine martin could be to build high elevation denning sites within human-modified forests.

Read More: All forests are not equal: population demographics and denning behaviour of a recovering small carnivore in human modified landscapes

The Pine Marten (Image Credit: Mike Pennington, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Protecting the UK’s Rarest is an Ongoing BATtle

The UK is home to 17 breeding species of bat – a quarter of our mammal species. The negative stigma surrounding bats (particularly now, given the COVID-19 bat fearmongering) may put them low in the conservation priority list of many people, but they serve some of the most important ecological services locally in controlling insect populations, and globally through pollination and seed dispersal services. Not to mention that they are just pretty cool.

In July this year, a wonderfully innovative study was published in the journal Ecology and Evolution that used forensic techniques to determine the extent of bat predation by domestic cats in the UK. Domestic cats are easily one of the top causes of wildlife decline in the UK, which is unsurprising given that we have introduced more than 10 million of them into our ecosystem. The study, among other important findings, reported that cats are responsible for around two thirds of admissions to bat rehabilitators. Bat rehabilitators in this study were classed as individuals who are registered and trained with the Bat Conservation Trust (BCT).

For me, this study offered a memento of the tale of Lyall’s wren (if you don’t know the story, please stop reading this and check it out here – it is hilariously depressing). The fact that so many cat owners still let their cats outdoors despite how much we know about their destruction is baffling.

Further concerns for bat populations were highlighted this year when HS2 ltd, the company behind the UK’s new high speed rail lines, started the unlicensed destruction of a vital habitat to one of our rarest bats; the barbastelle. The loss of ancient woodland from this project also poses a major threat to Bechstein bat populations, which require mature native woodland for roosting.

To support the UK’s bats, check out the bat conservation trust: https://www.bats.org.uk/

A Barbastelle Bat (Image Credit: Gernot Kunz, CC BY 2.0)

Hogging Wild Spaces

One perhaps surprising entry to the UK endangered list is the hedgehog. Once a very common sight across the country, the number of hedgehogs in the UK has halved since the 2000s, with fewer than 1 million recorded in 2019. The speed of this decline has resulted in their vulnerable status.

Large scale farming, blocking of habitat corridors by fences, and loss of food by increased pesticide use, have been key factors in their decline. In October, the UK media was reporting on another alarming threat to hedgehogs; traffic. Researchers at Nottingham Trent University (NTU) have recently provided an estimation that the number of hedgehogs killed on UK roads is around 335,000 per year. Given this is around a third of the annual recorded population, it is easy to see how they face an imminent threat of local extinction.

Helping hedgehogs by building friendly garden structures, and not clearing away fallen leaves in the autumn, are among the easiest ways to make a difference.

A hedgehog that should probably get off the road (Image Credit: Mary Hogg, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Welcoming Back Our Lost Species

One sign of hope for UK mammal conservation is how eager many of us have become to see extinct species return, either locally or nationwide, with several stories of rewilding having been highlighted throughout 2020. Reintroductions of species, when properly managed, can offer inexpensive but highly restorative features back into our natural landscapes.As a result of this rewilding craze, we have seen the reintroduction of natural ecosystem engineers such as the beaver and more recently, bison. I believe these reintroductions have sparked a new excitement for British naturalists (at least for me!), and I hope they encourage more to see the benefits of a diverse fauna.

American Bison in Yellowstone National Park (Image Credit: Stephen Pribut, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Final Thoughts

The UK government has pledged a 30 by 30 agreement to ‘rewild’ 30% of the UK by 2030. Which if done right, could be a significant start to bringing back some of the lost species and habitats of the UK, and protect our existing residents. Although arguably this pledge could be another case of greenwashing given that our definition of national park is more of an over-grazed ‘protected landscape’ than a true natural space.

At a cursory glance it may seem that there is diminishing hope for Britain’s wild spaces, but the increasing amount of work by organisations and their fantastic volunteers to help our mammal populations persist in the face of such opposition will always offer a positive view for the future.

There are far more mammals in need that could be covered in this summary article, and I hope this has encouraged any readers to find out more about UK mammal conservation. The detailed status of all our species is well covered by the mammal society at https://www.mammal.org.uk/science-research/red-list/. See also the MammalWeb project for a positive initiative for UK mammal monitoring and awareness.

Charlie Woodrow is a PhD student at the University of Lincoln, UK. He is interested in the evolution of animal communication and ecology, and is currently researching the morphological and functional variation in katydid ears. Follow him on Twitter @CharlieZoology.

Title Image Credit: Charlie Woodrow, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped

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